Travel Tips for First-Time Cruisers
Some first-time cruisers asked if I could give them tips to help prepare them for their cruise and to help them know what to expect. Glad to do it.
Cruise ships do vary but these tips apply to most vessels and are not pandemic specific. Ships, of course, are now having to arrange important COVID-19 precautions and experiencing major delays in cruising. But, when you are heading to the high seas, these tips might be useful to peruse before walking up the gangway for that great adventure.
- Find your “Sea Legs”
Your inner sensory system needs time to adjust to a constantly moving environment. Ask your doctor what seasickness medication may be wise to pack. Some passengers swear by Dramamine pills. Others like Sea-Bands, a wrist band said to alleviate nausea by acupressure. Still others prefer motion sickness patches. Ginger candy and green apples are popular natural remedies. I’m fortunate not to experience seasickness. I did have it once on a deep-sea fishing trip so I certainly know how it can take the pleasure out of cruising. In that case, I ate crackers and drank 7-Up but didn’t feel totally normal until back on shore at end of day.
- Pack light
The old glitzy formal nights on cruise ships are gone. Unless that is how you want to dress. A nice suit jacket and collared shirt for men and comfy dress or pants suit for women work just fine on the ship’s formal nights. I always wear a light rain jacket on my airplane flights to a cruise no matter what time of year. Doesn’t take up room in my luggage, wards off airplane chills and can come in handy on a cruise. I also pack a long sleeve shirt, cardigan and scarves for the heavily air-conditioned ship dining rooms and theaters. Don’t forget your camera, electronic chargers and notebook. Don’t pack medicine, car keys, house keys or electronic equipment in checked luggage.
I take only a carry-on suitcase and a backpack for flights to my cruises, no matter how long the cruise is going to last. I have been on too many cruises where airlines have lost passenger luggage. Not mine. In one case, a woman cruised in Europe for a week with me without her luggage. She kept buying T-shirts and sweatshirts and used the ship laundry almost every night. Some passengers carry a small bag with their swimming suit, sunscreen, hat and flip flops so they can go swimming as soon as they board the ship. Your suitcase will be delivered to your cabin but it may not arrive until later in the day.
Swimsuits, other pool wear, men’s tank tops, shorts and distressed jeans are generally not allowed in any of the restaurants during evening hours. However, there are plenty of dining options near the pool for passengers who choose to stay there during dinner hours.
- Plan to arrive at the departure city a day before the cruise
I know it can be costly to book a hotel room for a night before the cruise in your departure city. But it is well worth it to be there when it is time to embark. Sometimes I have caught a late flight out of Indy to arrive in my departure city the night before. Then I wait in the cruise ship airport for a few hours for my shuttle to the ship the next morning. Not the most comfortable option but it works. I’ve known too many people who missed a cruise because flights were grounded or delayed. If you are late, the ship will leave without you.
Get ready for boarding the ship by printing your online forms and baggage tags a few days before leaving home. Put your name and cabin number on your baggage tag. Some ships mail the tags to you. Others have them online to print. Have your passport ready as well. Expect to have your photo taken when you board as a souvenir. Professional photographers also will offer plenty of other photography opportunities on the cruise. Those photos are usually posted in a gallery and you can choose whether to buy. Photo prices are not too high and my favorite photo of my grandson was taken on a Disney cruise when he wore his suit to the Captain’s Dinner.
- Aboard ship
Your room may not be ready when you board. This is a good time to walk around the ship and enjoy the buffet, go swimming or just relax.
- Safety drill
This is mandatory so don’t consider skipping it. All services on the ship are shut down and guests must attend the drill. Your key card will show where your muster station is located. That is where you report for the drill and in case of an emergency. Sometimes passengers can sit in an appointed lounge muster station and do the drill. Other times, passengers must stand on a deck muster station as their cabin number is called or their cruise keycard is scanned. Attendance is taken so be there.
- Keep careful track of your cruise key card
The thin magnetic card given to you in the terminal before boarding the ship or given to you when you have boarded the ship is used to access your cabin and pay for drinks and souvenirs. You don’t need cash on board. Everything is paid with your key card. The cards also are scanned by crewmembers when you leave the ship and when you return so the captain can be assured that everyone is on board. Some cruise ships require that the card be slipped into a slot upon entering your cabin to turn on the lights. It does make it easy to know where your card is when you leave your cabin. But on many of my cruises, I’ve heard first timers trying to find a cabin attendant because the lights in their cabin won’t work. One time is all it takes to learn the card trick.
Some passengers wear the key cards on a lanyard around their necks and many ships sell the lanyards in their gift shops. Don’t place the card next to your cellphone. The key card can become demagnetized and you will have to go to the service desk to get another one.
- Your cabin
Most ship cabins have a TV, mini fridge, plenty of storage space, safe, life preservers, thermostat, ship phone and robe (to use but not take home). I often take a reusable water bottle to keep in the fridge. More cruise lines are going with shower dispensers with bath amenities – shower gel, shampoo and conditioner – in cabin bathrooms to cut down on disposing of those little amenity bottles. Bar soap and a small bottle of lotion are usually on the sink.
There is a hairdryer in your cabin so don’t bother bringing one. However, the hairdryer may not always be where you expect. I’ve found them in a bottom desk drawer, in the closet and under the sink. Just look. If you don’t find one, ask the cabin steward. Also ask if you don’t have a robe. No clock so if you want one, bring it.
The cabin steward will tidy up your cabin every day and do a bed turndown at night with complimentary candy, copy of the ship newsletter and maybe a creative towel critter.
Not allowed in cabins are candles, incense, travel irons, coffeemakers or electric heaters.
- Sanitize your hands – often
So many people in such tight quarters for such a long time are a breeding ground for illnesses, even before COVID-19 hit our world. To help prevent this, sanitizing stands are located around the ship, especially at any eatery entrance and at the disembark/embark station. Cruise staff are often ready to squirt your hands with sanitizers. Some ships also have wash basins and soap at eatery entrances because washing your hands with soap is even better than using hand sanitizers. If possible, use your own bathroom rather than the public ones around the ship. And always use a paper towel to open the handle of a ship bathroom or a bottom door foot push pedal (if the ship has them) when exiting a public bathroom on the ship.
- Consider buying a drink package
Water, coffee, tea and some juices are free in the ship’s buffet. Alcoholic drinks, specialty coffees, sodas and smoothies are usually not free. Check to see what your ship offers before you sail. Depending on what you plan to drink, it might be more economical to buy a drink package. Several priced ones are available and you can buy one a little cheaper online before you board the ship.
- Walk the ship’s buffet before choosing
Ship buffets are often huge so see what is there before filling your plate. On one cruise, I stopped to get some salad to go with my huge plate of seafood. The woman standing next to me eyed my delicious lunch and said she didn’t know there was a separate station for fish, shrimp, oysters, mussels and more. Her plate was already full. I could tell she would rather have had mine.
All cabins and verandahs are non-smoking. Smoking is only permitted in designated areas on some ships. Break the rule and pay a fine.
- Keep track of time
Make sure you are on ship time and never forget what time it is when you are ashore. Ship sanctioned shore excursions know to get passengers back to the ship before ship departure. But passengers lounging on a beach or enjoying one more cold one in a shore bar can easily forget when the last call is to be aboard. Ships must leave on time and I have been on cruises where some tardy passengers have been left behind.
- Read your daily cruise newsletter
Most cruise lines put a ship newsletter on your bed before you retire for the night. The printed schedule is chock full of activities, entertainment, dining choices, specials, where you will be the next day, when the ship will dock, when it will sail and much more. I always enjoy reading the newsletter and marking what I plan to do the next day. A wonderful way to wind down and have pleasant dreams.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
If you are only going up or down a few decks, walk it if you can. Elevators are often busy and walking might help you exercise off those extra desserts and sugary drinks.
- Pack sunscreen – and use it
The sun’s rays are often more direct on the rolling seas and you might not even realize how much sun you are getting. A hat always comes in handy.
- Take a swimsuit
Would be a good idea to have a swimsuit that you always leave in your suitcase. That way you don’t forget it and regret that you don’t have one.
Yep, all good cruises must come to an end. The night before debarkation, the ship will usually offer a quick presentation to discuss how it is done. You will be given the option of setting your packed luggage outside your cabin the night before by a certain time. It’s an old joke but true – please remember to keep clothes to wear the next morning. Don’t pack all your clothes except what you wear to bed in that suitcase outside your door. Passengers and crewmembers don’t want to see someone trying to disembark in their pajamas or less.
Passengers are usually given a time and a place to gather for debarkation. That helps prevent a mad dash for thousands of passengers trying to leave at the same time.
Crewmembers will pick up those suitcases the night before and you will reclaim your suitcase when you get in the ship terminal. Again, I take a carry-on suitcase on my flights so I don’t put it outside my cabin door. However, I know that I must carry it with me when I leave the ship. So, if your suitcase is heavy, don’t try to struggle with it. Elevators are usually jam packed on debarkation day but it can be a hassle to carry a suitcase downstairs to the designated meeting place. If you have Global Entry to get through customs, have your card ready. If you don’t have Global Entry, consider getting a card, especially if you plan to travel often. Quite a time saver.
- Have fun
I took my first cruise in 1978 and have never met a boat or ship I didn’t like. Relax and enjoy.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Cover photo: Small drink and snack bars are often located around a ship such as this one on the Celebrity Edge.